Black History Month: 6 African-American Women Trailblazers That Have Changed the World


Black History Month: 6 African-American Women Trailblazers That Have Changed the World

by Amiya Perkins
February 5, 2019
Photos of four of the six women profiled

Black History Month (also known as African-American History Month) is a celebration African-American men and women who have made significant contributions to our country. Though it is important to acknowledge prominent women figures such as Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, there are countless other African-American women who have made history in many different ways and in a variety of fields. Here are six African-American women heroes—both past and present—that changed the world of reproductive health for the better.

1. Mary KennerInventor

Headshot of Mary Kenner

Mary Kenner was an African-American inventor who revamped the world of feminine care with the invention of the sanitary belt (aka the maxi pad). Though her invention attracted multiple feminine hygiene companies, it was rejected by most when they realized Mary was African-American. Unfortunately, the maxi pad wasn’t patented until 30 years after its creation. Nevertheless, Mary went on to patent other household items including the bathroom tissue holder, a back washer that mounted on the wall of the shower, and the carrier attachment on walkers for disabled people.

2. Shirley Chisholm—US Congresswoman

Headshot of Shirley Chisholm

The first African-American woman elected to Congress was Shirley Chisholm (1968). She later gained the title of the first woman and African American to campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Her slogan was “Fighting Shirley Chisholm—Unbought and Unbossed." Shirley always sought after extracurricular activities that allowed her to advocate for women and minorities. In her early years in New York, she joined her local chapter of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and the Democratic Party club in Brooklyn. Shirley eventually retired from the House of Representatives in 1982 after serving seven years.

3. Byllye Yvonne Avery—Activist

Headshot of Byllye Avery

Byllye Avery has been a health care activist dedicated to bettering the welfare of African-American women for over 40 years. After her husband’s sudden death at age 33, Byllye made a commitment to improve the health of African-American communities with a focus on women’s health issues. In 1983, she founded the National Black Women's Health Project (now known as the Black Women's Health Imperative), the first national organization to specialize in black women's reproductive health issues. She has won multiple awards for her health care contributions such as the MacArthur Foundation's Fellowship for Social Contribution in 1989 and the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award for a Pioneer in Women’s Rights in 2008.

4. Luvvie Ajayi—Author, speaker, and digital strategist

Headshot of Luvvie Ajayi

Luvvie Ajayi is an award-winning author, speaker, and digital strategist who uses her voice and humor to amplify issues surrounding gender, racial, and social justice. Aside from challenging her audience of millions to get activated in their communities (through her blog Awesomely Luvvie  and her podcast Rants and Randomness) and consulting with brands as a successful digital strategist, she serves as the executive director of The Red Pump Project, a non-profit she co-founded that empowers and educates women and girls of color about HIV/AIDS to help eliminate the stigma associated with the epidemic.

5. Serena Williams—Tennis professional

Headshot of Serena Williams

Serena Williams may be unstoppable on the tennis court, but even star athletes can find themselves in a health crisis. We learned after the birth of her daughter, Olympia, a year ago, she faced complications including a pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the lung) followed by bedrest for six weeks. Serena credits her survival to the professionalism of her medical team, “They knew exactly how to handle this complicated turn of events. If it weren't for their professional care, I wouldn't be here today,” she stated in a self-authored CNN commentary. Serena’s status as one of the world's highest-paid athletes—having access to the best doctors and healthcare—encouraged her to become an ambassador in support of women of lesser means who face racial disparities in healthcare.

6. Bianca Laureano—Sexologist

Headshot of Bianca Laureano

Bianca Laureano is a LatiNegra educator and sexologist working exclusively with communities of color, immigrants, and youth for over 20 years. Her passion for putting communities of color at the forefront of discussions surrounding sexual health and well-being inspired her to found the Women of Color Sexual Health Network (WOCSHN). Now a resident of Oakland, CA, Bianca continues to write curricula that centered around communities of color including Sexual Attitudes Reassessment (SAR), embracing failure, and staying connected to erotic power while grieving/mourning.